Manitoba potato growers harvested a record crop of spuds this fall, says Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Growers Association Inc.
Yields averaged 315 (hundredweight) bags an acre on 67,300 acres of processing, table, chipping and seed potatoes,” he said in a recent interview.
“Coupled with that, we got a slight increase in prices,” Sawatzky said, who speaks for about 60 processing potato growers who planted about 48,000 acres. “So not only more volume, but a price increase as well, which is very much needed.”
Manitoba is second only to Prince Edward Island in potato acreage.
Manitoba’s five-year average potato yield has been around 280 bags an acre, but with strong yields the last three years, it’s now close to 300, Sawatzky said.
Most Manitoba processing potatoes are made into french fries by three companies — McCain Foods, which has plants in Portage la Prairie and Carberry, Simplot at Portage and Cavendish Farms Farms at Jamestown, North Dakota.
Sawatzky credited this year’s bumper crop in part to a long growing season that started early and ended late. But it wasn’t a perfect growing season, especially for some growers. Hail, high temperatures and European corn borers hurt some fields and quality.
“We had some corn borer damage that was a little bit unusual,” he said. “That might have also caused some stress at the end.”
Quite a few potato fields were infested with corn borer beginning in mid- to late July, according to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development’s summary of 2015 insects pests.
“Many plants, in patches, were damaged at various stages of plant growth,” the report says. “Damage on main stems appears to have affected the tuber enlargement, but the injury on secondary branches appeared to have no apparent deleterious impact.”
Late blight, a serious fungal disease, which infected some fields late in the season, didn’t hurt yields but has put some potatoes at risk of spoiling. However, french fry makers are processing them first, reducing the risk of rot spreading to the remaining potatoes in storage.
“It was a good thing we had some of that smoke (from forest fires) to temper some of the heat (this summer),” Sawatzky said. “In the end we’re finding out that quality is decent but there was some stress — sugar end issues (which affect potato quality) are starting to show up and other minor issues as well. But I think overall the recovery on the payables will hopefully be a little bit higher than normal as well. It’s a pretty decent crop.”
Manitoba processing potato growers were contracted to grow 18.5 per cent more potatoes this year than last, he said. Total plantings were up 4,000 acres or six per cent, with processing potatoes accounting for most of it.
Potato production is a very capital-intensive and competitive business in North America. Potato growers in the U.S. Pacific Northwest enjoy a longer growing season and higher average yields. That’s why Manitoba growers are working hard to increase their yields, Sawatzky said. The low Canadian dollar is helping Manitoba processing potato growers compete, he said.
“The early indications are (contract) volumes should remain fairly steady (in 2016), but it’s really too early to say,” Sawatzky said.